Insights from Fred Kua, VP Sales, Asia Telco
How satellites support the shifting needs of data traffic and fight against COVID-19
COVID-19 has emerged as the most serious challenge of our generation. Guided by the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) and other leading health administrations, affected countries are imposing various forms of social distancing practices and stay-at-home orders to slow down the spread of the pandemic. The stay-at-home mandates have impacted the ways we work and live tremendously, and will likely continue to do so for a long time to come. Amidst the lockdowns and movement restriction orders, people are obliged to spend long periods of time at home. Face-to-face interactions for work, for education, for leisure, for shopping and even for the practicing of faith, have migrated to online platforms.
From a telecommunications provider’s perspective, networks are being stretched and thrown off balance as traffic shifts from traditional operations at the offices to remote working environments, and usage of bandwidth-hungry applications has spiked. Most telco networks are not designed to handle sudden traffic surges and geographical shifts very well, especially through the terrestrial part of their infrastructure. After all, it is a matter of economics and optimization, rather than up-sizing the network to cater for every possible surge or shift in traffic.
Changing of work and education patterns
Even before governments announced lockdowns, businesses have begun to put pro-active measures for partial or full-fledged work-from-home arrangements as part of business continuity plans. After the implementation of lockdown, offices have become deserted as people either work from home or have stopped work altogether. As a result, data traffic migrated from the offices to residential areas.
The volume of work traffic in the cities would not necessarily change drastically. The pattern of traffic flow changes. Data originating in offices has shifted to residential areas. As a result, network nodes face challenges of traffic bottlenecks.
In education, schools, colleges and universities have closed and lessons have moved to online platforms. In many parts of Asia where parents place a high value on education, even tuition classes have shifted to online home-based learning. This new learning pattern is generating new online traffic from residential areas.
Besides the shifting of traffic, new ways of working, learning and collaboration using various applications and software are being swiftly adopted. The applications and software themselves are not new, but the take-up rates have seen a sudden explosion. For example, teleconferencing app, Zoom added 20 million mobile users in a single week in March. Experts are predicting that some of these changes would become a new norm, and would remain with us for a long time after the pandemic.
Changing of leisure lifestyle and habits
The COVID-19 outbreak and the lockdowns have also changed the way we use the internet and how we spend leisure time. The easy part to figure out is the increase in online usage at home, and hence the increase in traffic in residential areas.
Interestingly, there has also been a visible trend of traffic shifting from mobile apps to websites. This is true especially for video streaming apps like YouTube and Netflix, where bigger screens at home provide a better user experience compared to mobile devices.
Comparison of website and mobile app traffic during the same period. Source: The New York Times
Even for those who adhere to their mobile phones for applications, Opensignal analysis shows that across the globe, mobile phone users are shifting traffic from 3G/4G to Wi-Fi at home during lockdown periods. This could be due to a combination of reasons including cheaper subscriptions and faster download speed from home broadband. These two trends together show that traffic from cellular networks have shifted to broadband networks, which could be either via terrestrial or satellite.
Online habits have also changed quickly. For example, online shoppers have increased by 80% year-on-year in Brazil, 45% in Australia, and 32% in France according to the Financial Times. Video streaming has also seen a significant increase during this period. Disney+ OTT video streaming experienced a stellar growth, tripling its subscriber base within just a two-day period.
Video already constitutes 70% of internet traffic before the sudden increase from lockdowns. Worried about online video overloading the networks, in Europe, the European Commission has put pressure on Netflix and other streaming platforms to switch video format from HD to SD video streaming to alleviate the traffic surge and mitigate network congestion with authorities.
Satellite to meet needs of shifting of traffic patterns
For places with limited broadband connectivity, satellite is an attractive quick fix to increase the bandwidth for home broadband, be it for work or entertainment. This is especially true for smaller towns and the rural areas, where millions of migrant workers have returned home from the cities during the shutdown periods where businesses laid off workers.
Additional bandwidth can be delivered quickly via satellite broadband to homes, or to internet service providers via satellite trunking and onwards to residents via local Wi-Fi. Help is coming from satellite service providers to support essential services during this period of COVID-19 response. Satellite players have begun to prioritize traffic for education and business applications over gaming or entertainment video streaming.
Costs for satellite broadband have been dropping from a number of factors such as lower capacity pricing, innovation in the ground segment and also friendlier business models. For example, satellite broadband service in Malaysia now costs as little as US$23 per month for 60 GB. Prepaid subscription models have gained popularity and this is one way to help control the costs for rural subscribers. For example, ABS partner for satellite broadband service in Indonesia offers options for prepaid and postpaid models for their customers.
Affordable direct-to-home satellite broadband can also help bridge the digital divide for rural population not just during this pandemic, but also for the future.
Many countries already have national universal service obligation (USO) programs to bring broadband to the remote areas, either as community broadband via VSAT, or for augmentation of cellular networks. Example of which are BAKTI (Telecommunications and Information Accessibility Agency) program in Indonesia, National broadband plan (NBP) program in the Philippines and National fiberisation & connectivity plan (NFCP) program in Malaysia. Satellite is an integral part of these programs to help reach the more challenging places where the terrestrial infrastructure is not sufficient or not available. To combat the plight, faster deployment, upgrades and coverage expansion can be achieved by the use of satellite communications.
Satellite as a tool to check the spread of COVID-19
Besides business continuity and for entertainment, there are several ways that satellite can support the fight against coronavirus.
In most countries, confirmed cases started from the cities, especially those with extensive international air traffic. Over time, the virus spread to the other parts of the country. The rural areas have initially been shielded by distance from the epicenters, but this is where the next stages of fight against COVID-19 could well happen.
Rural communities face greater challenges compared to the cities once the virus hits home. The lack of medical infrastructure and trained personnel to fight a pandemic means that the impact could be disastrous for the local communities. Mobile hospitals, temporary hospitals and isolation wards can become an effective tool.
During a pandemic, timely information is critical to help direct resources dynamically to the places that need them most at any given time. Medical expertise can be tapped remotely from the cities via tele-health applications for health assessments, diagnosis and advice. Satellites can help to quickly link up the rural hospitals/wards to provide urgent help remotely. Telemedicine via satellite communications is nothing new. Satellite-based telemedicine has been successfully used in countries such as Australia, Albania, Canada, India, Italy, Romania, Russia, and Scotland.
Besides providing treatment, governments can also make use of the satellite links to prevent the spread via awareness campaigns into the rural areas. When it comes to the enforcement of social distancing and movement restrictions, satellite connectivity can also help uniformed personnel and volunteers in their work by ensuring that they stay connected with their chain of commands, and are able to tap into national database for records and the updating of statistics.
In Indonesia, we can learn from the ingenuity of service providers employing low cost transmit-at-the-pause satellite links at remote areas in the fight against COVID-19. A modified fixed antenna mounted on a pickup vehicle would be a quick and economical way to set up a fleet of mounted roaming Wi-Fi stations powered by satellite.
Governments can tap into existing rural broadband program, and expand them in scope and coverage to help block the spread of this pandemic. The fastest way to achieve it is via satellite solutions, which are scalable and able to reach the remotest places within their coverage.
ABS is ready to help and contribute towards the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Our fleet of satellites and teleports around the world are well positioned to connect up the remote and hard to reach places quickly. Our innovative solutions for cellular backhaul, broadband and video delivery can help in the government pandemic responses, and keep the rural population connected, informed and entertained during this challenging period.
COVID-19 is not the first, and certainly not the last pandemic to visit humankind. By being better prepared, we can reduce the impact, limit the damages and hopefully avoid before it ever becomes a pandemic.
It has changed the way we work and our lifestyle habits, probably permanently for many areas of our lives. In this regard, the telco sector is predicted to shine in the post-COVID-19 era, says GlobalData. The world would have been even better connected by then, business more prepared for such calamities. Users would be more familiar with digital tools, supported by new business models and applications.
Satellite can play an important supporting role in this revolution as reliable connectivity becomes a critical commodity.
At ABS, our dedicated engineers and delivery teams are working 24/7 to ensure the continued reliability and service availability of our global satellite fleet, teleports and services around the world. We can help fight the pandemic together with our partners and clients to generate creative solutions and to support the broader fight by enhancing your network coverage.
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